Currently the third highest ranked app on the app store in Ireland and the number one trending, it is no surprise that BeReal is the latest social media fad to make its way to Trinity. Although any app purporting to be “not another social media network” immediately ignites the cynic in me, BeReal is, admittedly, remarkably different from platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
For the uninitiated, the app sends its users one notification a day to “be real”, which involves taking a photo in under two minutes using the front and back camera. This is then platformed to “friends” on a feed, who can only see your post if they too have posted their one “be real” of the day. Allowing the user only two minutes to post aims to avoid the curation and falsity of other social media, and there is a certain parity – not to mention avoidance of anonymity – in having to post yourself before you can view the content of others.
Despite my skepticism, I have been enjoying the app since reluctantly downloading it. Restricting each user to one post a day means it is impossible to endlessly scroll, mitigating time wasting due to the limits of the feed. As well as this, it does in fact feel like a more genuine mode of connection than other apps I am on – seeing photos of friends at college in other countries eating their pasta pesto every day or toiling away in the library, rather than videos of clubbing or posed photos with friends, makes me feel I have greater insight into their everyday lives. However, I also consider this to be the danger of BeReal. Striving for reality online is ultimately unattainable, and, in trying to reach this unachievable goal, I believe we only succeed in breaking down the (necessary) boundaries between our online and offline worlds.
Although BeReal has removed the damaging features of filters and likes, it cannot avoid the fundamental tenets of social media – comparison and curation. Even if photos are not edited or intricately planned, seeing snapshots of many friends’ lives every day will still lead to some inevitable level of comparing your own life with theirs. Do they look better lying in bed doing their reading than you do? Are they surrounded by people more often? Is their life simply more exciting?
An awareness of being observed irrevocably alters our own observations
Moreover, the foundation of this app – that it removes curation from social media – is simply not true. Not only can users post “late”, and therefore wait to post until they are doing something more interesting, but it is generally impossible to engage online in a completely natural, instinctive way. This is epitomised by the multitude of “photo dumps” on Instagram. These carousels may be more candid and even revelatory of your personality or day-to-day existence than more staged posts, but they are still carefully collated and considered. To live online is to live with an acute awareness of audience, and this unavoidable fact of social media makes any attempt at “reality” futile.
Ultimately, though, the most important question is not whether social media can ever actually be “real” – I think most would agree that it cannot – but whether we even want it to be. Dissolving the walls between our lives online and offline might enhance an experience of the former, but is severely detrimental to the latter.
In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell describes Scott Polach’s art piece “Applause Encouraged”: “On a cliff overlooking the sea, 45 minutes before the sunset, a greeter checked guests in to an area of foldout seats formally cordoned off with red rope. They were ushered to their seats and reminded not to take photos. They watched the sunset, and when it finished, they applauded.”
When we allow social media to integrate more fully into our lives, as BeReal attempts to do, we are unable to experience life like the audience in Polach’s work.
To live online is to live with an acute awareness of audience
An awareness of being observed irrevocably alters our own observations. Our experiences are not simply moments, but seem to be memories even as they occur – we are already looking back, already out of the moment. This is not to say that I think the act of documenting our lives is bad – personally, I love looking back through photos and savouring the memories they prompt.
Social media, however, especially in its apparently more “real” form, fosters a hyper awareness of how events will be perceived and remembered, even as they are happening. Perhaps our goal should not be to make social media more “real”, but to instead accept its lack of reality, and enjoy it for what it is. Only with clear definitions and distinctions of reality – distinctions which BeReal blurs – will we consider each moment as an entity in itself, and truly feel it as such.